Tag Archives: Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing

Citizen Science II

In my last post I talked about ways that we can participate in science using the computing power of our home computers. BOINC (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure Computing) projects use screen saver type software to crunch everything from space data to climate models to malaria transmission rates.

These are all passive activities though, requiring just our machines and electricity.It’s a valuable contribution, to be sure, but what if there was more that we could do?

Well, there is. SETI@home’s original goal of proving the value of distributed science was a big success, as other scientific projects have expanded to use citizen scientists such as ourselves to help with the massive amounts of data that have been gathered.

Galaxyzoo is one of these. A multi-university collaboration, GalaxyZoo was designed to help get through the data gathered by the Sloan Sky Survey. The original goal for us users was to identify if a galaxy was present, if it was spiral or globular, and if spiral, if a bar was present. The project explained that human eyes could accomplish these feats where computer analysis could not, making our participation both more intimate and more valuable.

And it was fun! Every frame was a picture of deep space, and you never knew what might appear. At least one new object was discovered by a citizen scientist, and it now bears his name. Is that cool or what?

Around two dozen scientific papers have been written as a result of citizen analysis, and what we thought we knew about galaxy formation and growth has been challenged and expanded.  And I helped, in my spare time, from the comfort of my easy chair!

The U.S. Geologic Society (USGS) has the Bird Phenology program. Over the years, citizen birders have kept log cards of bird species. A literal mountain of paper is hard to study though, so they electronically scanned the log cards and gave us a browser page to read the card and enter the information into a database form. I’ve transcribed cards from as long ago as 1899. Besides the value to ornithologists of having thousands of first hand accounts catalogued by year and species and location, there’s an added value, a personal connection, in reading the name and handwriting of a person who thought it important to note the date that the robins returned to Indiana in the spring of 1912.

Then there’s Seafloor Explorer, a project by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in partnership with the Citizen Science Alliance. It’s my current favorite.  Just as Galaxyzoo used the Sloan Sky survey, Seafloor Explorer uses the WHOI HabCam survey of the ocean floor. Like in Galaxyzoo, the citizen scientist is presented with a frame of the ocean floor, and is asked to identify types of floor sediments (sand, shell, gravel, cobble, boulder), then to distinguish the life that may be present (scallops, sea stars, crustaceans, fish).

Every picture is both a mystery and an adventure, so much so that it’s almost addicting. You find yourself saying ‘just one more’ over and over, in anticipation of what you may see next. Will there be strange fish, or parts of a shipwreck? Or like in Jaws, just a too close up picture of the eye of a previously unknown sea beast?

But the work of science is mostly tedium. Mostly, it’s sand and shell, gravel and cobble. Mostly it’s sea stars and scallops, with a few sponges and fewer fish.

So far… like new galactic objects, finding new underwater species is inevitable.

People make our world better by using science to study and understand our surroundings, whether it is deep space, the deep ocean, or the microscopic world of sub-atomic particles. Modern techniques in gathering information have far out paced our ability to analyze it all in a timely fashion. Our computers and internet connections give us all the ability to jump in and lend a hand to help speed up the advance of human knowledge and understanding, and all in our spare time. Thanks to partnerships between government, the public and private sectors, we can all be citizen scientists helping to make the world a better place.

It’s easier than you think, and it’s a great way to give a little back for all we’ve received.

Citizen Science I


“She blinded me… with Science!” — T. Dolby

One of the unsung results of the rise of the home computer (thank-you, Woz and Steve!) and the internet that connects us all together is the capability for us to participate in science.

Not the kind of ‘science’ that counts begats and announces the age of the Universe as dogma, nor the kind that deduces that vaccinations cause mental retardation because someone on a street corner told us so. I’m talking tried and true, real science that works to better our understanding of the world around us.

Take SETI@home for instance. SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) was a NASA project that began in 1971, They used radio telescopes to scan the heavens for radio signals that didn’t come from earth. While it’s true that in space, no one can hear you scream, the universe is a noisy place in the radio part of the spectrum. Sweeps of the sky were recorded, and computers were programmed to filter out white noise and star songs from ET calling home.

By 1999, priorities changed, funding changed, and SETI lost computing capabilities. They still had recorded sky surveys to process, so they came up with a rather novel idea… they would use home computers to help process their data. Yes, home PC’s were no longer rare and their use was booming. SETI would design a screen saver that would show the results of the calculations being performed, and the calculations would only run when the screen saver came on, so no user activity would be impacted.

SETI@home was released in 1999 and has been running ever since. They announced two goals, one of expanding scientific observation to detect extra-terrestrial life, and one showing that the citizen science concept can work.

Then there’s BOINC  (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) which started out by taking over the client software for SETI@home.

Like many of our modern advances, BOINC is the result of partnerships between government and the private sector. Besides SETI@home, BOINC now provides access to a growing number of science projects for us to participate in, all while you are resting from your computer.

ET not your bag?  You can try climatepredicition.net, an Oxford based project that creates computer models of the earths climate and then monitors how changing variables, like carbon dioxide or loss of ice, would play out over time.

Einstein@home takes observations from orbiting satellites and crunches the numbers to try and detect gravity waves predicted by Einstein.

There’s FightMalaria@home and MalariaControl.net that measure different aspects of a disease that affects tens of millions.

If your PC is tricked out for gaming, try Rosetta@home, which helps determine the optimal 3D structure of proteins. Knowing the shape of specific proteins yields great rewards, both in understanding physiology and in the design of new drugs to fight a spectrum of diseases.

If you are a social cyber butterfly, you can even join teams (I’m a proud member of Paddy’s in Space) and engage in competitions.

Who’d a thought that we could individually contribute to the knowledge base and help make the world a better place while our PC’s and laptops were on hold?